Royal Commission – the Towards Healing failures – updated*

The Sydney Morning Herald reports…

“‘I wanted to know why, in the diocese of Lismore, then across all of Australia, then the world, why not one good fearless person could have stepped out against the depravities and wrongs that existed, including turning a blind eye to the abusers and moving the clergy from town to town to protect them from being discovered?”

With this anguished plea, Jennifer Ingham gave shaking voice to questions at the heart of hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney this week. Who takes responsibility? Who will lead?

In the strongest statement yet by a senior church leader on its mishandling of the crisis, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge told the commission on Wednesday there had been ”spectacular bungling” and ”drastic failure”. A ”tsunami” of child sexual abuse allegations had caught bishops and other officials ”like rabbits in a headlight”, he said. He cut through on the question other church witnesses dodged all week.

With mounting exasperation commission chair Peter McClellan had been asking whether the church as a whole should bear responsibility for the actions of individuals within it. In other words, should its great wealth not be available as compensation to the victims?

Bishop John Gerry’s response, parroting the church’s defence in civil cases, was that individuals are legally responsible for their own actions, and anyway the church is not a single legal entity so can’t be sued. In responding to victims, the problem he and colleagues had to deal with was ”the possibility of a judgment in a civil court”, the Bishop admitted.

But Archbishop Coleridge declared it was wrong insurers and lawyers determined how victims were treated under a church procedure intended to help them. The Brisbane archdiocese had $52 million in ready funds he was prepared to draw on for victim payouts.

Asked whether cases which had been settled might be revisited, the Archbishop responded: ”I would not exclude that at all. In the end, I [as archbishop] decide whether a sum conforms to the criteria of justice and compassion”.

Now 51, Mrs Ingham was abused by Father Paul Rex Brown for four years from age 16. Over the four years she developed bulimia which caused her to miss sitting for her HSC. She attempted suicide more than once and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

Much later she found the courage to tell church officials about it, in 1990, 1993 and 2006, according to her evidence. Nothing was done. When she eventually met with the bishop of Lismore Geoffrey Jarrett mid-year as part of her ”Towards Healing” process, he spoke to her about the ”difficulty bishops had in how to reprimand their sons without feeling that they did not love them”. She concluded he had no answers.

The same conclusion might have been drawn about the parade of churchmen and women through the witness stand at the commission this week who were asked to explain their treatment of Mrs Ingham and Mrs Joan Isaacs.

Mrs Isaacs was abused when she was 14 and 15 by Frank Derriman, the chaplain of her Brisbane convent school, Sacred Heart, Sandgate, in the late 1960s. In 1999 after two years of negotiations she got $30,000 and 10 sessions with a psychologist, and had to sign a deed promising not to make ”disparaging” comments about Towards Healing. The director of the church’s Queensland Professional Standards Office Bernadette Rogers said Mrs Isaacs treatment lacked justice and compassion and amounted to re-abuse.

”Towards Healing” is the focus of the commission’s fourth set of public hearings. It is a protocol put in place by the Australian Catholic Church in 1997 for people abused by its priests or other personnel, intended to allow them to tell their story to someone in authority in the church, to receive pastoral care and be offered financial reparation. It applies everywhere in Australia except the Melbourne archdiocese which uses the distinct ”Melbourne Response” established by Archbishop George Pell.

The hearing was told Towards Healing has helped many people, but had been set up ”on the run”, was messy, inconsistent, with often ”appalling” record-keeping, even after 17 years of operation. As far as the Church can tell from its incomplete data, out of 2215 complaints since 1996, 1700 people have used it, and $43 million has been paid out.

A consistent line from the church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, set up by the Catholic bishops to respond to the royal commission, is that over the years the growing requirement to deal with financial redress has compromised the pastoral response.

”Take (compensation) out of the church’s hands and let us get on with the work of pastoral care!” pleaded retired Bishop Gerry of the Brisbane Archdiocese.

Mrs Isaacs experienced Towards Healing near its beginning in the late 1990s, and Mrs Ingham went through it this year, 14 years later. It was clear from the evidence that the lawyers and insurers dictated how things went both then and now, and that insensitivity, obfuscation, officiousness and buck-passing increased the trauma of the process for Mrs Isaacs in 1999 and Mrs Ingham in 2013.

What changed was the amounts paid – $30,000 for Mrs Isaacs, $265,000 for Mrs Ingham, and the diligence and urgency applied to their cases. Mrs Isaacs negotiations’ dragged on for two years; Mrs Ingham was paid within days. And no confidentiality clause was applied to the recent case.

The failures of the Towards Healing protocol meant other ways of dealing with victim complaints needed to be explored ”if we are serious about coming to the aid of victims”, Archbishop Coleridge said.

He said that because powerful cultural factors converged within the church to create a ”perfect storm” around child sex abuse, ”it really does make sense to talk about some kind of communal or vicarious responsibility or even liability”.

He wants an independent national fund scheme to which all elements of the church, rich or poor, would contribute, with the church’s wealthier dioceses helping the poorer elements as needed.

Archbishop Coleridge has held the top job in Brisbane for 18 months and is a member of the Truth Justice and Healing Council. His brisk and forthright performance was a dramatic departure from the dreary cowed clericalism of the ”company men” who’d gone before. Justice McClellan’s voice and demeanour brightened. He indicated more than once to Archbishop Coleridge that the commission would be in touch with him again.

Gail Furness, SC, for the commission said its inquiries into Towards Healing would be ongoing. She invited anyone who wanted to share their experiences of it to contact the commission.

Who will take responsibility for the abuse that has occurred in the Catholic church? Who should pay? Who will lead? The Royal Commission, with an interim report due mid 2014, is edging closer to answers.”

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